Between the Lines: The 'Beeb,' past and present

The BBC regrets... and remembering Mike Elkins.

bbc logo 88 (photo credit: )
bbc logo 88
(photo credit: )
A rare act of apology by the BBC regarding its oft-criticized Middle East coverage deserves notice here - as does mention of a late journalist for that organization who should have been an example for his fellow reporters to emulate. Last week, BBC-TV correspondent Humphrey Hawksley made an on-air reference to both former Lebanese president Rafik Hariri and slain Hizbullah arch-terrorist Imad Mughniyeh as "two war victims with different visions, but both regarded as great national leaders." That description applied to the latter outraged Associated Press photographer Don Mell, who personally witnessed his AP colleague, Terry Anderson, taken hostage at gunpoint by Mughniyeh's men in 1988. Mell shot off a letter of complaint to the BBC, noting: "For you to refer to former prime minister Rafik Hariri and Imad Mughniyeh as 'great national leaders' in the same sentence is beyond belief. One was an elected leader who spent years and millions of his own money rebuilding his country. The other was probably the world's second most notorious terrorist... I seldom criticize the reporting of others because of my great belief in the exchange of differing viewpoints regardless of source, and my great respect for the first amendment of my country's constitution. But today you went too far. You've done your great institution and nation a huge disservice." The BBC uncharacteristically expressed contrition in its response, stating: "While there is no doubt that supporters of Hizbullah did regard Mughniyeh in such terms, we accept that the scripting of this phrase was imprecise. The description of Imad Mughniyeh should have been directly attributed to those demonstrating their support for him. We accept that this part of the report was open to misinterpretation. We apologize to anyone who may have been offended by this item." There was no "misinterpretation" here, though. There's no way, even by the morally relativistic terms sometimes utilized by the BBC, Mughniyeh - a shadowy underground figure whose funeral attracted a fraction of the near-million Lebanese who attended the Hariri rally - could be considered a "great national leader." This was just another example of the sloppy and corrupt use of journalistic language that too often afflicts the BBC's coverage of the conflicts in this region, and Hawksley, a highly regarded veteran reporter (whose area of expertise is more the Far East than the Middle East), should have known better. IT NEEDN'T necessarily be this way at the Beeb, though - and I had a personal reminder this week why not.The Israel Foreign Press Association, founded in 1957, has just finished marking its jubilee year. Part of that commemoration was a photo exhibition in lobby of the Jerusalem Theater, featuring prominent FPA members on the job over the past five decades. Although the exhibit closed this week, several of the photos are still on display in an on-line gallery at the FPA Web site ( Though the exhibit features the work of some of the top local journalistic photographers - most notably, renowned Time lensman David Rubinger - the pictures on display here are hardly their best work, being more in the vein of candid snapshots taken during the more idle moments of their assignments. Still, for those of us who know some of the veteran FPA members captured in the frames here, it's certainly interesting to see the likes of Jay Bushinsky, Marlin Levin and Bob Simon captured in their (and our) younger days. A highlight for me was a number of photos featuring the late esteemed journalist (and former FPA chairman), Michael Elkins. I had the privilege of working with Mike during the 1990s when he served as ombudsman of The Jerusalem Report, where he was always generously willing to spend time talking with and mentoring much younger colleagues such as myself. He was a remarkable man in many respects, with many different career achievements, but let's focus here on his work for the BBC. Eulogizing Mike after his death in 2001, another former colleague, Eric Silver (whose photo is also featured in the exhibit), wrote in an obituary published in The Independent that "from war to war, Elkins covered [Israel], first for CBS, then for Newsweek, and for 17 sonorous years for BBC radio. He scooped the world with the story of Israel's destruction of the Arab air forces on the opening day of the 1967 Six Day War. The BBC ran it, CBS hesitated. Elkins quit. If they didn't trust their correspondent, he didn't want the job. "Elkins was rare, if not unique, among BBC correspondents as a New Yorker who never mid-Atlanticized his accent. Rather, his American growler's voice and his epic, 1940s American radio style became his trademark. He was a master storyteller, a reporter with attitude. Even in private conversation, he spoke in vivid, well-crafted sentences. "The Arab lobby campaigned against him. The BBC, they argued, should not employ a Jew and a Zionist to report the Arab-Israeli conflict. Elkins's answer was: 'My reports are a matter of public record. If anyone can find a pattern of bias, let him say so.' They never did, at least not to the satisfaction of the BBC, which stood by him until he reached retirement age in 1983. He exploited his exceptional contacts in the Israeli establishment, but he always insisted that he was no one's mouthpiece." Michael Elkins was an example of what a journalist covering this country should be, and it's to the BBC's credit they employed and backed him for so many years. He was a model of what a reporter for that news organization - or any - should be. I'm sure he never would have referred on the air to the likes of Imad Mughniyeh as a "great national leader." What Mike would have called him in private conversation - well, that could not be written in this newspaper. [email protected]